Graduate Student Spotlight: Megan Jackson

Danielle Randall
May 25, 2017

Originally from the San Francisco bay area, Megan Jackson began her PhD studies in the Department of Chemistry in 2013. Her research with Professor Yogesh Surendranath's group focuses on understanding and controlling the rate of interfacial inner-sphere electron transfer at the molecular level. Energy storage and release reactions such as CO2 reduction, O2 reduction, and H2O oxidation underlie the operation of energy storage and utilization devices including electrolyzers, fuel cells, and metal-air batteries. In these devices, barriers to multi-electron activation of small molecules are surmounted by heterogeneous catalysts that bind reaction intermediates at surface active sites, and it is usually the electron transfer steps that govern the rate and selectivity of the reaction. Extensive research has uncovered the factors controlling the rate of outer-sphere electron transfer, in which an electron is transferred between an electrode and a molecule in solution; however, heterogeneous catalysis occurs via inner-sphere electron transfer, in which electron transfer leads to the formation of a bond between an activated small molecule (e.g. CO2) and the surface of the electrode. Very little is known about the factors controlling the rate of inner-sphere electron transfer, in large part because of the inherent heterogeneity of an electrode surface. While researchers can measure an aggregate rate of electron transfer that accounts for all contributing sites, it is often impossible to know which of the many surface sites are contributing to the rate of electron transfer and which are not, and thus it is difficult to rationally design better active sites.

Recently, Megan and the rest of the Surendranath group have developed a new class of catalysts (Graphite-Conjugated Catalysts, or GCCs) that incorporate molecularly well-defined, highly-tunable active sites into heterogeneous graphite surfaces. Through a combination of electrochemical and in situ X-ray absorption spectroscopy, Megan has found that in GCCs, the molecular active sites are electronically coupled to the electrode and act as hosts for inner-sphere electron transfer rather than outer-sphere electron transfer. This system provides the first example of discrete molecular sites that, upon conjugation to carbon electrodes, behave as true metallic active sites. She is now using this platform to uncover the factors that govern the rate of interfacial inner-sphere electron transfer and to develop optimal binding sites for small molecules such as CO2, O2, and H2O.

As the subject of May 2017's Graduate Student Spotlight, Megan shares what she is most looking forward to in the next decade, the fictional universe she'd choose to live in, the luxury she can't live without, who she'd choose to narrate her life, and much more!


1. What game or movie universe would you most like to live in?
I’d most like to live in the Harry Potter universe (as a wizard, obviously, not as a Muggle).

2. What would be your first question after waking up from being cryogenically frozen for 100 years?
Do you want to build a snowman?

3. Who are three of your favorite fictional characters?
Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, and Jonas from The Giver.

4. What is something that a ton of people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?
I don’t how many people are obsessed with it, but I certainly don’t get the point of white chocolate.

5. What is something that is considered a luxury, but you don’t think you could live without?
Expedited shipping!

6. What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
I fully expect someone to figure out how to commute by teleportation in the next ten years, and I am greatly looking forward to it.

7. What piece of entertainment do you wish you could erase from your mind so that you could experience for the first time again?
Les Miserables on Broadway.

8. What question would you most like to know the answer to?
I have many questions, and one of the best parts of doing research is getting to answer some of them! One question I have is, how do cephalopods and chameleons know what color to change into?

9. What is on your bucket list?
I’d really like to visit the Grand Canyon.

10. What is your favorite four-legged creature?
The giraffe.

11. If you could have a never-ending candle that smelled like anything you wanted, what fragrance would you want it to be?
Mulled cider.

12. If animals could talk, which animal do you think would be the most annoying, and why?
Cicadas. They’re already loud and annoying; imagine if they could talk!

13. Would you rather have an unlimited international first class ticket or never have to pay for food at restaurants?
I’d rather never have to pay for food. I fly occasionally, but I eat every day!

14. What are some of the best vacations you’ve had?
I visited Niagara Falls last year, and they’re spectacular!

15. What’s the most interesting building you’ve ever seen or been in?
Architecturally, the most interesting building I’ve been in is Stata. Content-wise, the most interesting building I’ve been in is the Exploratorium.

16. If someone narrated your life, who would you want to be the narrator?
The narrator in Arrested Development.

17. What’s the most interesting documentary you’ve ever watched?
Life Animated was a really interesting and hopeful documentary, and an even better book! The most unusual documentary I’ve seen is called The Wolfpack.

18. If you were given five million dollars to open a small museum, what kind of museum would you create?
A museum for small dinosaurs.

19. Which fictional character would be the most boring to meet in real life?
One of the background fish in Finding Nemo. I probably wouldn't even recognize him.

20. If you could pick any career other than the one you’ve chosen, what would it be?
Before I learned chemistry, I wanted to be a writer.


Many thanks to Megan for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!